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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Plants in Buddhist and non-Buddhist Indian Philosophy

Plants are explicitly described as non-sentient by most philosophers. Some of them are even quite crude in denying any sentience to trees. Why? Probably because they had to contrast popular "superstitions" according too much importance to plants, especially to trees.

In many of the early Buddhist legends, drawn from such sources as the Jātakas, the Dhammapadatthakathā, the Mahāvastu, the Dīpavaṃsa, the Divyāvadāna, the Aśokāvadāna, and so forth, an important dialectic is set up between the morally and spiritually perfected Buddha and various nonhuman deities such as yakṣas (Pāli, yakkhas) and the serpent deities, the nāgas. On the one hand, the Buddha incorporates and presides over a pre-existing mythology of nature. In so doing, the new religion of Buddhism is able more readily to meet the needs of an unlettered laity (Sutherland, Yakṣa in Hinduism and Buddhism p. 26).
(I would say that the same process applies to many "Hindu" religions. For instance, Arjuna marries, among other women, a nāga-princess, and his brother a Rākṣasī.) Then, philosophers had to sort out a consistent theology out of these inclusive processes and, thus, tended to deny the sentience of plants. Buddhist may have been even more harsh in this process (see Schmithausen's illuminating essays on this topic) due to the typically "Buddhist dialectic between nature and ascetism" (Sutherland, p. 28).


Jayarava said...

Ugh. I don't see how this is philosophy except that Buddhists had to operate in a worldview where people believed this stuff. Legend is far from philosophy and I don't see how it can be treated as philosophy. The word "spiritually" has no place in our discourse - it does not translate any traditional term.

The Buddha does not preside over nature in any sense that I understand. If anything he escapes from nature if we equate nature with saṃsāra, which I do.

These beings form part of the backdrop of the Buddhist world, but they don't really have a place in Buddhist philosophy (if it can even be called philosophy).

I don't recall any denial that plants are sentient. It's just not an issue. I don't know of any discussion of the subject in the traditional texts that I study. The focus in on human psychology, not on speculative metaphysics.

I don't think there is a dialectic between nature and asceticism either.

Buddhists were interested in how suffering arises in the mind of human beings. The Buddha says this time and time again - and insists that he *only* teaches is suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path to that cessation. The rest is very much of peripheral interest. People asking about speculative metaphysics are given short shrift.

And while lay people of that time and place may well have been superstitious (maṅgalika), the bhikkhus were told off for aping the lay people (both by the lay people themselves and by the Buddha). Everyone was unlettered, but some had heard much.

That Buddhists eventually became embroiled in the speculative debates is a source of lasting shame for us. That it continues today shows that most people just don't get Buddhism.

And this is why I don't find inter-religious dialogue or comparative very interesting.

elisa freschi said...

1. Jayarava, what *I* wanted to say is that philosophers had to elaborate on popular assumptions and thus ended up having to deny the sentience of plants (explicitly denied by Prābhākara authors, but I remember discussions on this topic also in Schmithausen's quotes). I am not saying that popular beliefs are anythng more than popular beliefs.

2. I cannot recall having said that the Buddha "presides over nature". I agree with your point re. the escape from nature, which is what —I believe— Sutherland has in mind when she speaks of "dialectics of ascetism and nature".

3. Your last line makes me think that you think that "religion" is nothing but "popular beliefs". If so, I can now understand why you think that there is no use in having an interreligious dialogue. I am also not interested in any dialogue among upholders of different superstitions (say, black-cat-fearers and 13-fearers). I wonder whether the things would look differently in the case of a) intertheological dialogue (including all sort of philosophy of religion within "theology", independently of the presence of a God), b) open dialogue among experiencers (who might end up discovering that there is something beyond the different labels they use?).

Anonymous said...

[That Buddhists eventually became embroiled in the speculative debates is a source of lasting shame for us. That it continues today shows that most people just don't get Buddhism.]

"A source of lasting shame"? Good lord, how puritanical. Maybe it just means that some people have interests that go beyond the cessation of suffering. Reminds me of that prig Goenka, always sneering at "philosophical entertainment", otherwise known as love of thinking. Well, he's just a businessman, so we would expect him to take an instrumental attitude to thinking. But some lost souls just like the way thinking and wondering feels. Come on, admit it, you can relate.

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